Last week, the New York Post reported that two Harvard Law School student groups—the Women’s Law Association (WLA) and the Law and International Development Society (LIDS)—had invited Bronx Defenders Executive Director Robin Steinberg to speak at the school, and that she would be honored in the school’s International Women’s Day Exhibit. According to the Post, New York Police Department union leaders objected, citing Steinberg’s alleged mismanagement and misleading statements relating to an anti-cop rap video that included appearances by Bronx Defenders employees and was filmed, in part, in the Bronx Defenders offices.
Mere hours after the Post’s article, the student groups disinvited Steinberg. But now, other members of the Harvard Law community are defending the initial decision to honor Steinberg and denouncing the student groups for quickly folding.
Those under pressure to disinvite a contentious speaker should know by now that caving to those demands won’t quell the controversy, and it certainly won’t change whatever ideas or behavior are being found objectionable. Instead, the disinvitation hinders or prevents the meaningful campus discussion that could have taken place if objectors presented their viewpoints for consideration in addition to, rather than instead of, those of the speaker. Besides, it’s all but certain that a speaker or honoree remarkable enough to receive an invitation in the first place won’t be universally liked. If colleges and students disinvited all visitors to whom someone objected, no speakers or honorees would ever make it to campus.
WLA’s and LIDS’s concession is worrying for another reason, too. The Post relayed a statement from the groups in which they clarify that they “did not intend for [Steinberg’s] nomination to suggest in any way that it is acceptable to harm police officers or incite others to do so.” The harsher assessments of Steinberg’s misconduct characterize her as having lied to city officials and failed to take basic steps to monitor what was going on in her own office, but even critics seem to be stopping short of suggesting that Steinberg herself actually supports violence against police officers. The groups’ disclaimer thus mirrors the logic Western Michigan University used to burden students who invited rapper and activist Boots Riley to campus last spring: Essentially, all behavior and advocacy of a group is also attributed to (and used against) anyone who can be associated with that group, even indirectly.
Thankfully, not everyone at Harvard has accepted this result.
More than 180 students, alumni, and staff argued in a letter published in two student publications that through her decades of work, Steinberg “has improved the lives of countless women and individuals whose voices would otherwise be silenced,” making her an apt choice for recognition by the school and the student groups. They further criticized the groups for following the direction of those quoted in the media, rather than engaging with the Harvard community:
The decision to remove Robin Steinberg from the exhibit does not represent the feelings of the student body, and it was not made in a democratic or transparent way. In fact, the decision was made without meaningful dialogue or consultation with members of either organization or even the various students who contributed to the nominating process. This decision-making suggests that the leadership of the WLA and LIDS caved to the pressures exerted by a divisive, and often sexist, media campaign, as well as to pressures from our own administration, instead of staying true to the wishes of students who believed Ms. Steinberg worthy of recognition despite the recent events involving The Bronx Defenders.
The letter concluded with an invitation to Steinberg and a request of the WLA and LIDS:
The leaders of the WLA and LIDS do not speak for us. As such, we are extending our own invitation to Ms. Steinberg to speak at HLS. Our community has a lot to learn from her. We also expect these organizations to either meaningfully explain their decision or to apologize and include Robin Steinberg in the International Women’s Day Exhibit.
If that’s not enough to prompt a re-reconsideration, criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield wrote on his blog that Harvard Law professor (and, as we’ve noted before on The Torch, due process advocate) Janet Halley made her thoughts on the subject clear thusly:
Harvard lawprof Janet Halley, who was also slated to be an honoree for International Women’s Day, has rejected the award due to to the Women’s Law Association withdrawing its invitation and award to Robin Steinberg.
Whether or not Steinberg is re-invited (we’ve seen it happen before), it’s reassuring to see that not all members of the Harvard Law community will let themselves be cowed by critics. We are also glad to see that Steinberg has been extended a new invitation to speak on campus.